Are moths the missing pollinators in Subantarctic New Zealand?

  • Max N. Buxton The New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Limited, Ruakura, Hamilton, New Zealand
  • Barbara J. Anderson The Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand
  • Robert J.B. Hoare Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research, Auckland, New Zealand
  • Janice M. Lord Department of Botany, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
Keywords: Pollination, islands, interactions, Lepidoptera, ecology, mutualism


On offshore islands, flowers are typically small, simple in colour and shape and more reliant on wind- or self-pollination than insect-mediated pollination. Islands also tend to have a species-poor pollinating fauna. The New Zealand Subantarctic islands (latitude between about 46° and 60°) have a depauperate pollinator fauna. However, many flowers in this region are large, brightly coloured and apparently completely reliant on insect visitors for pollination. In the absence of bees and butterflies, moths and flies may be particularly important pollinators in the region. Using six Heath moth traps simultaneously over four nights in three different habitat types, 241 moths were caught, representing six species. We found that moths carried pollen identified to four plant species (Bulbinella rossiiDracophyllum longifoliumGentianella concinna and Acaena minor), with B. rossii and D. longifolium pollen being most abundant on moth bodies. Weather conditions explained moth abundance and distribution, but neither weather nor the number of moths caught were reliable predictors of their potential as pollinators; moths carried on average more pollen grains from more plant species in the shrubland despite harsh weather conditions and few individuals caught. Local flowering abundances may help explain this trend, with the predominance of D. longifolium flowering in the shrubland and B. rossii in the exposed megaherb field. This study is the first to provide evidence that moths may be capable of acting as pollinators in Subantarctic New Zealand, and that their contribution should not continue to be overlooked.


Download data is not yet available.


Allan H.H. 1961. Flora of New Zealand. Vol. I. Wellington, New Zealand: Government Printer.

Archibald R.D., Heads M.J., Patrick B.H. & Tangney R.S. 1986. The Lepidoptera, bryophytes and panbiogeography of the Auckland Islands. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago Entomological Society.

Bernardello G., Anderson G.J., Stuessy T.F. & Crawford D.J. 2001. A survey of floral traits, breeding systems, floral visitors, and pollination systems of the angiosperms of the Juan Fernández Islands (Chile). The Botanical Review 67, 255–308, doi: 10.1007/BF02858097.

Biesmeijer J.C., Roberts S.P.M., Reemer M., Ohlemuller R., Edwards M., Peeters T., Schaffers A.P., Potts S.G., Kleukers R., Thomas C.D., Settele J. & Kunin W.E. 2006. Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313, 351–353, doi: 10.1126/science.1127863.

Buxton M.N., Anderson B.J. & Lord J.M. 2018. The secret service—analysis of the available knowledge on moths as pollinators in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 42, 1–9, doi: 10.20417/nzjecol.42.11.

Cheeseman T.F. 1919. The vascular flora of Macquarie Island. Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1914. Scientific reports. Series C. Zoology and botany. Vol. 7. Part 3. Sydney: Government Printing Office.

Dugdale J.S. 1971. Entomology of the Auckland Islands and other islands south of New Zealand: Lepidoptera, excluding non-Crambine Pyralidae. Pacific Insects Monograph 27, 55–172.

Herrara C.M. 1987. Components of pollinator “quality”: comparative analysis of a diverse insect assemblage. Oikos 50, 79–90, doi: 10.2307/3565403.

Johnson P.N. & Campbell D.J. 1975. Vascular plants of the Auckland Islands. New Zealand Journal of Botany 13, 665–720, doi: 10.1080/0028825X.1975.10430354.

Klein A.M., Vaissière B.E., Cane J.H., Steffan-Dewenter I., Cunningham S.A., Kremen C. & Tscharntke T. 2007. Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences 274, 303–313, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3721.

Leather S.R. 2018. “Ecological Armageddon”—more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers. Annals of Applied Biology 172, 1–3, doi: 10.1111/aab.12410.

Lloyd D.G. 1985. Progress in understanding the natural history of New Zealand plants. New Zealand Journal of Botany 23, 707–722, doi: 10.1080/0028825X.1985.10434239.

Lord J.M. 2015. Patterns in floral traits and plant breeding systems in Southern Ocean Islands. AoB Plants 7, article no. plv095, doi: 10.1093/aobpla/plv095.

Lord J.M., Huggins L., Little L.M. & Tomlinson V.R. 2013. Floral biology and flower visitors on Subantarctic Campbell Island. New Zealand Journal of Botany 51, 168–180, doi: 10.1080/0028825X.2013.801867.

MacGregor C.J., Pocock M.J.O., Fox R. & Evans D.M. 2014. Pollination by nocturnal Lepidoptera, and the effects of light pollution: a review. Ecological Entomology 40, 187–198, doi: 10.1111/een.12174.

McGeachie W.J. 1989. The effect of moonlight illuminance, temperature and wind speed on light-trap catches of moths. Bulletin of Entomological Research 79, 185–192, doi: 10.1017/S0007485300018162.

Medeiros M.J. & Gillespie R.G. 2011. Biogeography and the evolution of flightlessness in a radiation of Hawaiian moths (Xyloryctidae: Thyrocopa). Journal of Biogeography 38, 101–111, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2010.02402.x.

Moore L.B. & Edgar E 1970. Flora of New Zealand. Vol. II. Wellington, New Zealand: Government Printer.

Ne’eman G., Jürgens A., Newstrom-Lloyd L., Potts S.G. & Dafni A. 2010. A framework for comparing pollinator performance: effectiveness and efficiency. Biological Reviews 85, 435–451, doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2009.00108.x.

Newstrom L. & Robertson A. 2005. Progress in understanding pollination systems in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 43, 1–59, doi: 10.1080/0028825X.2005.9512943.

New Zealand Plant Conservation Network (NZPCN) 2014. Dracophyllum cockayneanum. Accessed on the internet at on 24 July 2016.

Ollerton J., Alarcon R., Waser N.M., Price M.V., Watts S., Cranmer L., Hingston A., Peter C.I. & Rotenberry J. 2009. A global test of the pollination syndrome hypothesis. Annals of Botany 103, 1471–1480, doi: 10.1093/aob/mcp031.

Patrick B.H. 1990. Lepidoptera of the Auckland Islands. Dunedin, New Zealand: Department of Conservation.

Patrick B.H. 1994. Antipodes Island Lepidoptera. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 24, 91–116, doi: 10.1080/03014223.1994.9517457.

Potts S.G., Biesmeijer J.C., Kremen C., Neumann P., Schweiger O. & Kunin W.E. 2010. Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25, 345–353, doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2010.01.007.

Proctor M., Yeo P. & Lack A. 1996. The natural history of pollination. London: HarperCollins.

Rosas-Guerrero V., Aguilar R., Marten-Rodriguez S., Ashworth L., Lopezaraiza-Mikel M., Bastida J.M. & Quesada M. 2014. A quantitative review of pollination syndromes: do floral traits predict effective pollinators? Ecology Letters 17, 388–400, doi: 10.1111/ele.12224.

Sutrisno H. 2008. Moth diversity at Gunung Halimun-Salak National Park, West Java. HAYATI Journal of Biosciences 15, 111–117, doi: 10.4308/hjb.15.3.111.

Taylor R.H. 1971. Influence of man on vegetation and wildlife of Enderby and Rose Islands, Auckland Islands. New Zealand Journal of Botany 9, 225–268, doi: 10.1080/0028825X.1971.10429139.

Thomas J.A., Telfer M.G., Roy D.B., Preston C.D., Greenwood J.J.D., Asher J., Fox R., Clarke R.T. & Lawton J.H. 2004. Comparative losses of British butterflies, birds, and plants and the global extinction crisis. Science 303, 1879–1881, doi: 10.1126/science.1095046.

Thomson G.M. 1928. The pollination of New Zealand flowers by birds and insects. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 57, 106–125.

Wood J.R., Wilmshurst J.M., Turney C.S.M. & Fogwill C.J. 2016. Palaeoecological signatures of vegetation change induced by herbivory regime shifts on Subantarctic Enderby Island. Quaternary Science Reviews 134, 51–58, doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2015.12.018.
How to Cite
Buxton, M. N., Anderson, B. J., Hoare, R. J., & Lord, J. M. (2019). Are moths the missing pollinators in Subantarctic New Zealand?. Polar Research, 38.
Research Articles